Sustainable-X Startup Spotlight on In Good Company: Changing the Narrative of Disability in the Workplace
Jul 11, 2023 —
In Good Company founders Sarah Naumann (MBA ’23) and Amanda Shojaee (IA ’14, MBA ’23) want to change the narrative of disability in the workplace by helping to create a new vision for what teams can look like. Supported (or inclusive) employment includes accommodations for those with disabilities so they can succeed on the job. The founders have witnessed how supported employment can create positive outcomes for employers, disabled employees, teams, and customers alike. On March 31, 2023, In Good Company placed third in the Sustainable-X Showcase. With the help of prize money, investment, and participation in a startup launch program, the In Good Company founders are working to achieve their mission. Andre Calmon and Karthik Ramachandran, co-directors of Sustainable-X (a partnership of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business and CREATE-X), asked the founders to share their startup journey.
Where does the story for this startup begin?
Sarah Naumann (SN): I’ll start with a story from my senior year in high school. I had an extra elective to fill, so I signed up to be a student aid for the special education class. Every time I entered that classroom was a reset to the way I saw the world. On any given day, I might have been a moody teenager, grumpy about having a bad hair day or not getting the lead in the school musical. But the students in this class challenged and humbled me – and brought me joy. I signed up to be an aid because I thought they needed me, but in fact I needed them.
What is one of your favorite memories from that experience?
SN: I went to a big school in Texas with a lot of overachievers. But the special ed classroom was tucked away in the corner of a back hall. The teacher knew I was involved in the arts. She said, “These students have never been in the spotlight. Would you mind helping to make them shine?” We ended up putting on a show. It was spectacular!
How has your allyship with your friends with disabilities informed your life goals?
SN: My friend from high school, Michael, has Down Syndrome . Back in high school, he said his dream was to go to college, get a job, and have a family. Those are the same things I wanted. When we got together ten years after graduation, I realized I had done almost all those things while Michael had done none. I became determined to change the narrative for people with disabilities by making them a part of the heartbeat of society – in jobs and communities. And I want to rally as many people as possible to join in this story!
How has this passion made an impact in your career choices?
SN: I started my career as a teacher to students with learning differences, but realized there was more that I wanted to do beyond the walls of my classroom. I decided to come to Scheller to get my MBA so I could acquire the skills I was lacking in order to work towards a more scalable solution. I’ve had some amazing mentors in the social impact space – like Terry Blum and Dóri Pap [faculty director and managing director, respectively, of the Institute for Leadership and Social Impact]. They’ve helped me to try to solve the problem I care about through social entrepreneurship. In the first year of my MBA, they taught me about customer discovery, which meant listening to the problem before creating a solution. The art of listening has really informed how I begin to approach a solution.
What did customer discovery teach you?
SN: I wanted to tackle social isolation in the adult population and had a very specific vision for a solution. However, when I was doing customer discovery, I discovered that of all the adults with disabilities who are job seekers in the U.S., 80% have not found employment. Many of them are going above and beyond to prepare themselves for the job market by participating in IPSE [Inclusive Post-Secondary Education] programs, working with job coaches, etc. I saw room for growth in the area of support on the employer’s side. I realized I was in a unique position to leverage my Scheller College network to solve an employment problem. I could connect the dots between employers and a potential workforce.
Amanda, how did you and Sarah first meet?
Amanda Shojaee (AS): We connected in Spring 2022 in our Collaborative Product Development class, taught by Karthik Ramachandran. I discovered Sarah’s passion for solving business problems in a socially impactful way. We realized that with her vision and my drive to investigate, discover, and iterate on solutions, we made a great team. While I saw a lot of social good in Sarah’s idea, I also spotted a strong case to be made for this just making good business sense. It’s a win-win.
Sarah, how did Amanda become your business co-founder?
SN: Being a solopreneur is lonely and tiring. I got so worn out doing all the work on my own that I almost pulled the plug indefinitely. Then, something truly miraculous happened. Amanda (who had no idea how close I was to pausing this endeavor) approached me. She had heard about my business idea. She said, “I like your idea. Can you use me?” Partnering with Amanda, who brought new energy and ideas, has been one of the greatest gifts in this whole process.
How does your startup aim to solve the nation’s labor shortage by connecting employers with an inclusive workforce?
AS: In Good Company prepares employers to receive candidates with disabilities. We’d love to see more businesses shift their view of inclusive employment from a “nice to have” to a “must have.” Our observation is that employers, particularly those in the service industries, are in need of fresh talent, and here we have a talented group seeking employment. Through our first-hand experience, we have witnessed the positive impact of a safe and inclusive environment where everyone feels welcome, resulting in satisfied customers and an improved team dynamic.
Describe the journey of developing your startup.
AS: I researched Census Bureau data to see what industry is suffering the most from the labor shortage. The food and service industry jumped out right away. Scheller is in a neighborhood with plenty of restaurants to learn from, so our discovery began without any delay. We thought that surely at least one restaurant would be interested in solving an old problem with a new solution. El Viñdeo Local was one of the first restaurants we walked into. We asked one of the owners, Robert Kaster, if they had any labor challenges. He said they had a problem with chronically vacant positions. It was hard to get someone to interview. Then, if someone was hired, it was hard to get them to continue working past the second week. We asked Robert if he would be open to embracing a new method to solve this problem – by hiring a disabled person. Robert said that one of his values as a business owner was to employ as diverse a team as possible, but he didn’t know how to act on it.
How did you partner with El Viñedo Local?
SN: Amanda and I developed a plan to teach Robert and his business partner Keith Miller best practices for employing people with disabilities. A high school classmate of a friend of ours, Ryan, who has autism, was unemployed and looking for work. Robert and Keith agreed to interview him for a job. We provided insight on how to conduct the interview to be sure it was in a format that would set both Ryan and them up for success. This accommodating interview also provided clarity to the owners so they could best understand how to place Ryan meaningfully and provide him with the accommodations he’d need to succeed on the job, such as breaking his shifts up into more but shorter periods of time. We told them to ask questions that would benefit everyone. Things like: Describe the ideal work environment where you would thrive. Are you a solo worker or team player?
AS: The restaurant was having trouble keeping inventory organized and restocked. In the interview, Robert and Keith discovered that Ryan is gifted at checklists and likes to work alone. They decided to pull inventory-related tasks off the plates of other team members to shape a new role that was well suited for Ryan. Since Ryan started working in January, the other team members have been able to do their jobs better. And Ryan is doing a great job organizing the storage room. He reports when the stock of an item is low. He also makes sure the owners don’t overbuy items, which helps them save money. Ryan is helping the restaurant just like they are helping him.
How did you become involved in Sustainable-X?
SN: When we heard about the Sustainable-X Showcase, we decided to go for it. We’d never formally pitched and thought it would be a great experience. Preparing for and participating in the Showcase bolstered our confidence, sense of purpose, and desire to commit long term to this business. Amanda and I were both quickly approaching graduation, but both of us were having a hard time finding job opportunities that we were excited about. We kept thinking about our business, but our biggest hang-up was money.
AS: Sustainable-X gave us a platform to be among like-minded problem solvers. When we won third place and found out there was an investment opportunity attached, we were in shock. We realized we could actually do the business full time.
SN: If not for Sustainable-X, we would be in corporate jobs in the day and working on our business in the evening. Now I get to focus on helping this population I deeply care about full time, and I couldn’t be happier.
Would you like to acknowledge any other Georgia Tech people or resources who have helped you?
AS: In addition to those already mentioned, we’d like to acknowledge Female Founders, the MBA Entrepreneurship Club, the MBA Women in Business Club, and our professors Astrid Marioni and Manpreet Hora who helped shape our understanding of entrepreneurship and service operations. Their course content is now coming to life for us!
What are you both focusing on now?
AS: Placing in the Showcase gave us the opportunity to participate in the 12-week CREATE-X startup launch program this summer. It’s a full-time job! We are attending lectures about pricing, marketing strategy, and the like, and are immediately putting what we learn into practice with In Good Company. We’re expanding to the hospitality industry as we have connected with some wonderful leaders in this space who also value inclusive employment. We’re even attending their annual conference in Las Vegas next week to continue building connections in this space to build custom solutions for this group.
SN: To walk this scary road of entrepreneurship while being surrounded by people who want to see our company succeed has been amazing. We know the work will be hard, but we’re just in awe of the many gifts that have already showered down. Classmates have given their time to help us work through pricing, build out the brand, and review decks. My boyfriend built our website for us in two days and has offered his startup expertise. Professors, guest speakers, and business community members have become our mentors and advocates. All of this makes taking the next leaps of faith a bit easier knowing that we are “in good company!”